Top al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq 'have been killed'
Al-Qaeda’s top man in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri (pictured), was killed alongside another terror chief in a government raid in the northern Iraqi province of Salaheddin, the country’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has confirmed.
AFP - Al-Qaeda's top two commanders in Iraq have been killed in a joint US-Iraqi military raid north of Baghdad, dealing Osama bin Laden's global terror network a major blow, American leaders said Monday.
Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayub al-Masri, who had direct links with bin Laden, were killed early on Sunday in a shootout 10 kilometres (six miles) from Tikrit, the home city of executed dictator Saddam Hussein.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, holding pictures of both men before and after their deaths, said Al-Qaeda was now "bleeding... and severely weakened," and that a major threat to the country's security had been removed.
"Their leaders are falling," Maliki told state television. "Al-Qaeda has become too weak to represent a danger to Iraq, but we have to be more careful and aware to eliminate them completely."
He said Baghdadi and Masri, whose identities had been confirmed after forensic tests, were killed in a raid on a safehouse as part of a major operation in which evidence was found that had foiled future attacks.
"During the operations computers were seized with emails and messages to the two biggest terrorists, Osama bin Laden and (his deputy) Ayman al-Zawahiri," Maliki added.
Iraq's government has on several previous occasions announced the capture and killing of Baghdadi and his real influence in Al-Qaeda had in the past been called into question by US forces.
The defence ministry said on Monday that Baghdadi, a former member of Saddam's police, had been in US custody four years ago but released.
Although Al-Qaeda had "tried to camouflage" Baghdadi by "presenting several people with this name," the identity of the man killed on Sunday was not in doubt, Maliki said.
"This is genuine," Maliki said, shortly before a US military statement backed up the killings.
US Vice President Joe Biden said the "deaths are potentially devastating blows to Al-Qaeda in Iraq," echoing an earlier statement by General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in the country.
"This operation is evidence in my view, that the future of Iraq will not be shaped by those who would seek to destroy that country," said Biden, who is charged with managing the US military's withdrawal by the end of 2011.
Odierno said the killings were "potentially the most significant blow to Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) since the beginning of the insurgency," in a statement which reported a US soldier had died in an American helicopter crash during the operation.
US forces have always said Masri -- a veteran Egyptian militant named Al-Qaeda chief in June 2006 after the death of his better-known Jordanian predecessor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a US air raid -- was the real AQI leader.
The US statement notably referred to Masri before it mentioned Baghdadi.
"The joint security team identified both AQI members, and the terrorists were killed after engaging the security team," it said.
Masri's assistant and Baghdadi's son were also killed and Iraqi forces later arrested 16 wanted individuals, it added.
Iraqi authorities said last April they had captured Baghdadi, identified as one of the top leaders of the local wing of Al-Qaeda blamed for a wave of violence across the nation.
The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the Qaeda front in the country, however, denied the claim weeks later.
Defence ministry spokesman Major General Mohammed al-Askari told AFP on Monday that Baghdadi was a police brigadier general during Saddam's rule.
Although he was taken into US custody in early 2006, he was freed months later having managed to obscure his role in the insurgency, according to Askari.
In July 2007, a US military spokesman said Baghdadi was a fictional character designed to put an Iraqi face on a terror group led by foreigners and that the voice on his audiotapes was that of an actor.
At the height of Iraq's sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007, Al-Qaeda and other Sunni militant groups killed thousands of civilians when they bombed markets and mosques crowded with Shiite civilians.
Although overall levels of violence have fallen in the past two years, a series of massive suicide attacks in Baghdad, including several on government buildings, since last August has proven that AQI remains a potent threat.